What to Watch at Home

Thanksgiving is over, which means many of you will be exhausted from shopping and eating and need some fine home entertainment.  The People’s Critic has come to your rescue with some recommendations on what to watch at home.  Check out my Now on DVD page as well as my Streaming Picks page to help make your holiday weekend movie choices.

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

ImageFour years ago, I was having a conversation with some of my high school students regarding what books they like to read.  One fairly astute young man, whom I held in high regard, told me he was reading a book called The Hunger Games.  He said it was about a supposed utopian North American society that holds annual organized battles to the death to maintain order throughout the numerous districts.  It sounded interesting, but I was not that impressed as my critical mind, still reeling from the absurdity that was (and still is) the Twilight “saga,” began its prejudicial routine of condemning most young-adult literature as being dumbed down versions of classics in order to make cash grabs at an increasingly illiterate reader-population.  However, this one particular student’s recommendation obliged me to forgo my rant about Brave New World, The Giver, 1984, and the host of other “Big Brother is watching you…” examples and give this one a try.  Now, as the adaptation of the book series’ second novel comes to the big screen, I confess myself as a fan awaiting the return, with millions of others, of Katniss Everdean to the big screen.

2012’s The Hunger Games was a tremendous hit automatically green lighting the entire film franchise and splitting its final entry, Mockingjay, into two separate films.  This year’s film, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (or Hunger Games: Fire by some people – you know who you are) is based on perhaps the best book of the trilogy and finds our heroine, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) back home in District 12 awaiting the annual victory tour that follows the 74th Hunger Games and precedes the 75th.  President Snow (Donald Sutherland) remains none too pleased as Katniss and Peeta’s (Josh Hutcherson) risky move in the previous games showed an unexpected weakness in his control and has sparked a sort of uprising in some of the poorer districts.  The 75th Hunger Games offers Snow an opportunity, as every 25 years marks a quarter-quell, a special competition that gives Snow and his new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) a chance to even the score.

Much of what makes The Hunger Games: Catching Fire work comes from the source material.  This entry in the series has many more tricks up its sleeve than the previous film.  That being said, the trio of screen writers (including author Suzanne Collins herself) and new director, Francis Lawrence have noticeably shifted the film’s focus away from the characters and more to the atmosphere, themes, and events set in action from the first film.  In fact, the writing is bit edgier leading to some extra spirited dialogue especially from Peeta and Heavensbee.  Accordingly, this film has a different feel and agenda, which keeps the series fresh, but also may disquiet fans who want more Katniss.  That is not to say, Ms. Everdeen is not the film’s shining star, she is, and her love triangle between Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta continues to be provocative rather than stale and arbitrary.  Lawrence continues down her path to being the most beloved starlet of her generation by authentically representing Katniss’s struggle between newfound fame and inherent defiance.  Furthermore, she is supported by a very recognizable A-List cast.  However, saying much more about the cast or plot would ruin some of the film’s best surprises. 

One surprise worth ruining is Jena Malone’s role in the film.  It should come as no surprise that there is another reeping, and there is another host of tributes.  Malone plays the highly anticipated Johanna Mason from District 7, and she steals every scene she’s a part of – possibly making her the best new element of the film. 

Altogether, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a fine adaptation of Collins’s novel, and it is a highly entertaining film as well, ascetically edging out its predecessor.  The film’s nearly doubled budget from the original is obvious – the costumes pop, the effects are much better, the acting continues to be strong, and the ambitiousness of the film is far more evident.  A-

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 26 minutes.  It is a superior follow up to The Hunger Games and a phenomenal set-up to the series’ two-part conclusion.          

 

Thor: The Dark World

ImageSince this film is somewhat ridiculous, I have decided to write with a less than professional tone (See my Gangster Squad review for a similar example).  Warning, sarcasm ahead.

Marvel Studio’s onslaught of high-octane entertainment continues with this year’s Thor: The Dark World.  Things may have quieted down on Earth after the Battle of New York, featured in 2012’s The Avengers, but the same can not be said about Asgard.  It turns out that the evil dark elves, along with their leader, Malekith have been awaiting an opportunity to strike.  What do they want to strike and when do they want to strike it?  Well, it turns out the dark elves hate the light and they want to cast the universe in darkness.  A perfect opportunity arises when the 9 realms of the universe align, a convergence that only happens every 5000 years causing gravitational abnormalities and bringing about the Yang-Mills anomaly that could open crossroads to universe intersections like the nexus of all reality or, in the case of this film, a fault that starts a cosmic eclipse linking the dark elves’ realm, Svartalfheim, to Earth!

So, the stakes are high.

The aforementioned cosmic eclipse happens to open right in cutie-pie, scientist, Jane Foster’s (Natalie Portman) backyard.  This causes Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to reunite with Foster for the first time in two years.  While Foster feels a bit burned by the length of time her supposed love’s been away, it doesn’t stop her from joining him on a spur of the moment jaunt to Asgard in the hopes that she can aid the Asgardians in their fight against the dark elves.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy Thor: The Dark World, but the fact that I had to write a sentence that included dark elves, Norse realms, convergence, nexus, and cosmic eclipses lets you know that we’re dealing with a film that will not be everybody’s cup of “mead.”  Nonetheless, Marvel knows their core audience, and it seems that the Thor franchise is aimed directly at them (or us).  However, if you are not a “Thor” fan and are looking for a reason to see this film, you need look no further than Tom Hiddleston as Loki.  Hiddleston steals every scene he’s in and since it’s public knowledge that he will not appear I the sequel to The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World is your one-stop-shop to get your Loki fix.

The original definition of a “B movie,” is a low-budget commercial film that is in some way inferior to major releases.  Thor: The Dark World does not fit this description entirely, but it has the feel.  It is a somewhat ridiculous film, but once it gets rolling, it is a lot of fun, especially the last 30 minutes.  It is certainly the weakest in the Marvel franchise, but so far that should not be too dissuading.  B

Thor: The Dark World is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes.  As with all Marvel movies, stay tuned during the credits for tie-ins to upcoming films.  Thor: The Dark World has a teaser during credits as well as one after credits.

12 Years a Slave

ImageThere’s a moment towards the end of 12 Years a Slave where Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) looks directly into the camera and seemingly at the audience.  He stares for an extended moment, as if to say, “Can you believe that only 150 years ago – this happened…in the United States of America?”  12 Years a Slave is the quintessential American slavery-era film; it is heartbreaking, disturbing, tender, raw, and also beautiful.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northrup, a free, New York citizen who is a victim of a horrific kidnapping scheme where Southern slave traders abduct free Black citizens and transport them South forcing them back into slavery.  Northup’s life and family are ripped from him so suddenly that it is astonishing.  The title is pragmatically evocative of how long Northrup will endure his injustice, and director Steve McQueen makes sure the audience feels every bit of it as well.

The film is based on Northrup’s own memoir, a literary example preciously rare as so many slaves died before they could tell their stories or were never taught to read and write.  A pervasive struggle Northrup faces in the film is searching for tools or opportunities to write.  The film opens with Northrup covertly trying to make ink out of blackberry juice and fashion a pen out of stray twigs.  McQueen wisely emphasizes the oppressive silencing that occurred in order to, in some way, try to explain how such outrageousness was even possible for so long.

McQueen frames Northrup’s experience by casting recognizable faces as various archetypes of 19th Century Southern society.  Paul Giamatti plays a slave merchant in all of its absurdity, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the hypocritical plantation owner who seemingly appreciates humanity but wants to turn his eyes from the horror he knows is happening right under his nose, and Brad Pitt plays…Jesus; I’m pretty sure he’s playing Jesus.  However, one player, other than Ejiofor, gets to sink his teeth into a role that is far more substantial, Michael Fassbender.  Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, a slave owner who owns Northrup for nearly 10 of his 12 years in slavery.  Fassbender is terrifying; his character is reminiscent of Ralph Fiennes’ character in Schindler’s List, yes – he’s that chilling.  However, what sets him apart from being a typical embodiment of evil is that as the film goes on, it is clear that Epps is mentally ill.  This element does not garner sympathy for his actions, but it does reveal some of the helplessness inherent in a society that avoids the value of human life.  The end result is a decaying infrastructure that eats away at itself until it collapses.

Of course, this is a showcase for Chiwetel Ejiofor, an actor who has been on the brink of greatness for some time now.  Ejiofor’s performance is certainly in the running for the best of the year.  He harnesses strength as he portrays the effects of a dark and obtuse time in human history.  As Solomon Northrup, he leads the audience through a series of events that certainly require a bold and fearless guide.

12 Years a Slave is a moody masterpiece that I’m sure offers more context in repeat viewings, but I don’t know what kind of person would be able to sit through this film more than once.  McQueen contrasts the most abhorrent events of our young country’s history with some beautiful filmmaking, glorifying the Southern landscapes in rich, luscious irony.  His camera is up close and personal, using countless close-ups with the clear objective of putting slavery “in your face.”  The emotion is real and raw, not melodramatic.  Towards the end of the film, Northrup finally breaks down, which is inevitable.  He weeps for what he has missed.  It is a history lesson of the best and worst kind.  A

Ender’s Game

ImageThe People’s Critic is back!  Some excellent and major life changes had forced me to put the site on a brief hiatus, but nothing will keep me away from the “critically” important task of telling all of you what I think about recent films!  So let’s get on with the show…

Let me get this out of the way, I have not read Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel, Ender’s Game.   This review does not reflect quality of adaptation but merely the merit of the film as it stands independent from the book.  That being said, Ender’s Game is intriguing enough and perhaps marks the start of a potentially strong franchise.

Regardless of how you feel about Ender’s Game, it is nice to see Harrison Ford in space again.  Ford plays Colonel Hyrum Graff, a likely pun on the word “gruff” as his characters is certainly that.  Following the common tradition involving child protagonists, this is a film about the future.  Graff and his International Military seek out and train only the most promising children in his Battle School because only children have the potential to master the intricate “war games” necessary to protect Earth from a looming threat from an alien race known as the Formics.  The Formics nearly triumphed over the humans once before and every child grows up learning the story of Mazer Rackham, who sacrificed his life to destroy the mothership.  Now, the humans are preparing to take the offensive and eliminate the Formics forever.  Graff finds his golden child in the form of Ender Wiggins (Asa Butterfield), an introverted yet brilliant young recruit.

Sacrifice is a pervasive theme in the film and it is dealt with in a very provocative way.  The title itself plays the title character’s surname within the colloquial term “End Game,” which suggests the notion of performing actions for the supposed greater good.  Thus, there is always a looming sense of distrust and darkness regarding the motives of Graff and his school.  Graff’s methods are harsh and borderline abusive.  However, this does keep the audience guessing and on edge throughout the perpetual “hazing” of Ender as he single handedly rises through the ranks despite tremendous adversity from his fellow recruits and superiors.

Ender’s Game is a surprisingly bleak and dark look at humanity, but so it is with most good science fiction.  The main hurdle that the film struggles with is its unevenness in developing Ender’s time in Battle School and his relations with family and life on Earth.  The film makes a habit of glossing over details that could have made the film more character driven.  Instead, screenwriter/director Gavin Hood chooses to downplay characterization and simply toss archetypes into moral ambiguity with clever special effects, especially some of the “war game” scenes.  Nonetheless, the moral ambiguity that he does emphasize is palpable and the film’s premise is fascinating at times.

Overall, Ender’s Game is a mixed bag.  It is dark and an interesting concept, but it wants to keep at least one foot in lighter territory in the hopes of appealing to a young audience.  The novel’s fan-base has been young-adult oriented – yet the novel debuted in 1985, resulting in a potentially wide audience appeal.  However, the film’s identity crisis does feel obvious and blunts the film’s overall impact.  This is certainly not a bad movie, and science fiction fans and fans of the book have a very worthy film to watch.  C+

Ender’s Game is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes.